I arrived 3 months ago today and have been teaching for the past 2 months, so it's a good time to step back and look at my life here so far from a 'big picture' standpoint.
First, pleasant surprises: before I came I expected to face lots of mosquitoes and terribly stinky air from local industry.In fact I see virtually no mosquitoes and those I do notice don't seem inclined to land on me.And the occasional stinky air is just from my own neighbors burning leaves/branches and garbage.More importantly, I had no idea what a warm welcome I would receive, from my colleagues and their families in particular.I have been invited to at least a dozen homes and 3 weddings, helped almost more than I want to be with everything I need to do from paying bills and changing money to grocery shopping and getting copies made.Even after this long, almost everyone I pass walking to and from school - many not even IAIN students - makes eye contact and smiles, and many say hi, even calling me by name.And I certainly never expected to have my photo in the paper five times, much less a color shot half a page high! Also I'd worried just a bit that some people might try to convert me to Islam ( being in an Islamic institute especially ) but that has not happened.
As for disappointments, the two main ones - and both are substantial - are (1) that teacher training has been a much smaller part of my role here than I'd hoped and expected; and (2) that the English Education program has shown zero interest in my being here, and is in fact a hopeless mess with students who mostly don't even learn much English ( many have no intention of becoming English teachers, in fact ) and teachers who often use Indonesian in class and who show up for class at best late, sometimes not at all.The only training workshop I've done was at the TEFLIN conference; at least it was well-attended.Here there's been vague talk ( but nothing more ) of me doing the same workshop, and helping with a testing workshop for IAIN Arabic teachers, but there hasn't even been any talk of my organizing weekly trainings as listed in the job description.There doesn't seem to be any audience here for such a thing, in fact; i.e. if a session were scheduled it's not clear who would come.Surely no more than a small handful comprised of those I work most closely with.As for me getting involved in 'restructuring' the English Ed. program as described in IAIN's ( read: my counterpart's )ELF proposal, that was never a real possibility.Also there is no English Club or interest in starting one, or having 'film nights' much less ( getting really preposterous here ) reading discussion groups.And I haven't been invited ( not yet, at least ) to do teacher training workshops in other parts of Indonesia, as I'd read about other ELFs doing.I was invited to give a presentation at a regional teachers' meeting but it wasn't 'training' and most there didn't understand English at all. Recently I was invited to Sriwijaya U. across town to help a group of grad students with their IELTS exam prep, and here I taught New Games one afternoon to an enthusiastic crowd, but basically I teach mostly low-level English skills classes under conditions that virtually guarantee that no one will improve much. In a word, the teaching here so far has been unsatisfying. From what I've been able to discover, only my counterpart actually cared about getting an ELF; the school obviously had no objection to his applying but, as it's turned out, once the novelty value of having a native speaker teacher wore off, no one else here was at all interested in spending time with me to use/practice English, or in 'putting me to use' in any way that might make a difference. Even if they had any sense of the possibilities, those possibilities simply wouldn't appeal to them enough to take the time and make the effort.Actually, the unspoken general agreement among virtually everyone here seems to be, "I won't expect any serious effort from you if you don't expect any serious effort from me.Let's just all keep 'going through the motions' and hope that's good enough to get by."
To date, the most tangible benefits for anyone here of my coming have been that two of my colleagues will get to attend next year's TESOL Conference in the US, and one of my students will get to spend two months in Arizona during the winter, all expenses paid in every case.
For the most part, what I've found here is pretty much what I'd expected based on the Internet research I did about Palembang and the experiences of other ELFs as described in their blogs.Palembang as a city truly has nothing to recommend it, as far as I can see.It is a strictly functional city full of mostly poor people who don't have the luxury of caring about how things look or how efficiently things are organized. It is muggy-hot, crowded, and for me completely boring - as is the region around it, with absolutely no scenery, archeology/temples, or traditional crafts/colorful ceremonies etc. except to a limited extent the weddings. Since my last international 'home' was Istanbul, I have gone from one extreme to the other; I could live there forever and never imagine becoming bored. But that's hardly a fair comparison, I know. Still, it's frustrating to be in a country with so many fascinating things to see and do, yet not have access to any of it until my holiday period.
Other non-surprises: almost no one here knows any English or has any interest in it, absolutely no 'locals' I encounter ever use a word of English for actual communication except with me ( why would they? ); still, though, I was surprised to find that there are NO English-language novels in even the largest and best mall bookstores. Regarding food, other than flavorless white rice, the favorite and often inescapable local foods are greasy and/or squishy, and rely mostly on chili for any significant flavor, though without even a hint of subtlety.The only food I can say I honestly enjoy and will miss is sate, which reminds me: I should have it more often! I could add as another disappointing surprise that, unlike every other country I've lived in for quite some time,even the mega-supermarkets like Carrefour have almost nothing in the way of varied imports, and what they do have is outrageously expensive.There's just no market here for anything but local 'staples' and cheapo Western-imitation junk food. As for accomodation, the house I'd expected to move into was not available after all but the one I ended up in is comparable, and I'm grateful it's next to campus so I can avoid what would be a miserable commute.The Muslim calls to prayer, starting after 4 am, are inescapable; again, no surprise there, and I don't mind. It reminds me that I'm 'not in Kansas anymore'.
I have needed, and consequently have learned, very little Indonesian, much less Palembang-ian, which is almost all I hear being spoken. I'm sure I will triple or quadruple my 'working' Indonesian vocabulary when I travel around on my own in January. But I'm surrounded by English all day at work and then I come home and spend the evenings alone. Shopping and getting around only require simple vocabulary. It was obvious at once that the Indonesian 'lessons' I was supposed to get at work were not going to be anything like real lessons ( they fizzled at once and were never mentioned again, no surprise ), and my study materials at home are pretty rudimentary even if I had the motivation and energy to use them with any discipline.
Compared with my other overseas jobs, the really significant difference here is that I have no expat colleagues and friends.So far I'm holding up alright but it is something I do miss and expect will miss more as the months pass.The only times I've seen and talked with Americans at all has been when I've occasionally met the local Fulbright ETAs, and at the TEFLIN conference.I appreciate having Skype since it means I can at least talk with my kids and mom regularly, and could/will do it more if I get lonely for real conversation.
At this point I find myself in a day to day routine that is neither unpleasant nor pleasant. I'm putting a lot of energy into my classes even though my students don't, because I enjoy doing it for its own sake. I'm looking forward to a solid month of travel in January, around central/eastern Java and Bali/Lombok. Then I might be able to write some blog entries that are actually interesting - and to post some interesting photos as well.